Matthew 5:21 says

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time..." (KJV)

This term is also used in verse 27.

Prior to verse 21 Jesus is talking about the law, and the scribes and Pharisees. Could the "them" in verses 21 and 27 be the scribes and Pharisees or someone else?

  • Why the need to ask such an utterly banal question in the first place ? He is obviously referring to the generation to whom Moses delivered the Torah. Were He to have had the scribes or Pharisees in mind, He would have most likely said by them of this time/generation, as He does elsewhere in the Gospels. – Lucian Aug 19 '19 at 12:12
  • @Lucian, thank you for your comment. Can you please provide some references as to how you have come to your conclusion. Thank you. – Michael Aug 21 '19 at 21:59
  • @Lucian, the reason I asked the question is because I did not know the answer. – Michael Aug 21 '19 at 22:07
  • Other than the absolutely obvious ? And God spake all these words, saying... Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. (Exodus 20). And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel... Thou shalt not kill. Neither shalt thou commit adultery. (Deuteronomy 5). When speaking of his own contemporaries, the Redeemer usually employs the phrase this generation (Matthew 11:16, 12:41-42, 23:36, 24:34; Mark 8:12, 13:30; Luke 7:31, 11:30-32, 11:50-51, 17:25, 21:32). Also, in other languages (Romanian, German, etc.), it is to, not by. – Lucian Aug 22 '19 at 0:40
  • @Lucian, Thank you for further explaining your reasons behind your commentary. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my query. – Michael Aug 22 '19 at 5:22

The Dative τοῖς ἀρχαίοις

The dative τοῖς ἀρχαίοις need not be understood in English as “by those of old time” (instrumental dative); it could also be understood as “to those of old time”1 (dative of indirect object). If the latter, note the consequent parallelism:

21 You have heard that it was said to those of old time, “You shall not murder, and whoever shall murder shall be liable to the tribunal,”

22 But I say to you, that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be liable to the tribunal, and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca,” shall be liable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever shall say, “You fool!,” shall liable to the fiery Gehenna.

The Meaning of ἀρχαῖος

ἀρχαῖος need not refer to an ancient or distant time in the past (i.e., antiquity). It can simply refer to any time earlier than the present, as opposed to ὕστερος, which would refer to any time later than the present.

According to LSJ,2 ἀρχαῖος can be used as the opposite of ὕστερος.

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Regarding ὕστερος, LSJ states that, with respect to time, it can mean next or later (i.e., what follows the present time).3

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On a timeline, it would appear as follows:

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Therefore, τοῖς ἀρχαίοις (nom. οἱ ἀρχαῖοι) can be understood as “the earlier people” (or the earlier generations), as in, all those who preceded the Lord Jesus Christ. We need only ask ourselves, who were the people who heard it said to them, “You shall not murder...”? The answer is: more or less every Jewish person since Moses (and before Jesus) had heard that said to them, whether from their own fathers, or by hearing it in the synagogue on the Sabbath.4


By contrasting what was said to all earlier generations versus what he was saying to his audience now, the Lord Jesus Christ was establishing his authority over everyone who preceded him, including the scribes and Pharisees.5 In Matthew 7,

28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine. 29 For he was teaching as having authority, and not as the scribes.

The scribes and the Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat.6 Yet, the Lord Jesus Christ is greater than Moses.7 Therefore, he had greater authority than all those who preceded him.


1 cf. Rom. 9:12 (ἐρρήθη αὐτῇ—“it was said to her”), 9:26 (ἐρρήθη αὐτοῖς—“it was said to them”); Rev. 6:11 (ἐρρέθη αὐτοῖς—“it was said to them”), 9:4 (ἐρρέθη αὐταῖς—“it was said to them”)
2 LSJ, p. 251
3 id., p, 1906
4 Acts 15:21
5 cf. Matt. 7:28–29
6 Matt. 23:2
7 Heb. 3:3


Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

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  • 1
    thankyou for your answer. Can I please clarify...based on your answer I am reading that you are saying that the "them" includes the scribes and Pharisees and all those that came before Christ. Have I understood correctly? – Michael Aug 17 '19 at 0:35

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